Pillar of Wisdom (Cantigas de Santa Maria, Vol. IV). Gabriel’s Message (Cantigas de Santa Maria, Vol. V). (Two discs)

The Renaissance Players, directed by Winsome Evans
Classical, Early Music
Tall Poppies TP 231 and 232
Reviewed by , February 1st, 2015

These two discs conclude a five CD series drawing from the extensive collection of songs in the Cantigas de Santa Maria attributed to King Alfonso X (1221-1284) of Castile. Every one of the 420 poems with musical settings in the manuscript makes mention of the Virgin Mary, placing her in the narrative often in direct interaction with Alfonso himself.
At a cross-roads of religions and cultures in times of changing fortunes, 13th century Castile was Christian society with a degree of tolerance of the cohabiting Judaism and Islam. Alfonso was especially keen to surround himself with scholars, philosophers and artists from the East and the West, believing that Spain’s ultimate destiny was “to make heterogeneous cultural links”. It is in that spirit of cross cultural learning and understanding that Winsome Evans has selected the instrumental and vocal elements in the setting of songs from the Cantigas.

Winsome Evans

Winsome Evans

The provenance of the recordings in these two discs is a mysterious . . . a detail lacking from the otherwise detailed booklets. The project dates back to 1994, whence Evans was in discussion with Kathleen Kulp Hill of the University of Kentucky who translated the vernacular texts, and to whom the Pillar of Wisdom is dedicated. The first three discs in the series were released in 1995 on the Walsingham Classics label. These two CDs, on Tall Poppies, were released last year. A compilation CD of selected songs across the entire series entitled Of Numbers and Miracles was released in the US on the Celestial Harmonies label in 2001. The implication is that the entire series was recorded in 1994/95, but only the first three CDs released at that time. The recordings for these present CDs could therefore date from that time. For anybody keen on collecting the whole series, there might be some difficulties in obtaining the first three discs, as The Renaissance Players’ website indicates that all three are “Out of Print”.

A common trait with all The Renaissance Players recordings is the emphasis on unique instrumental colours, rhythms and vocal styles in combination, often with strong driving additive rhythms. For the most part, the settings for the songs in these last two CDs in the series is simple—a small number of contrasting instrumental and vocal textures. One particularly striking vocal texture features sparingly in the extended piece ‘Bẽeyto foi o dia’ in Gabriel’s Message is three high sopranos in parallel harmonies underscored with the rich rasp of the unique voice of Mara Kiek on an unshifting drone note. The result is like a vocal hurdy-gurdy, and well matches the bright sound of the reed instruments. That particular song, the longest in the entire series at nearly 24 minutes, maintains interest through dramatic changes of texture from one stanza to the next through the alternate use of speech, declamatory free style singing, and strong driving rhythms.
A primary focus throughout the two CDs is the beautiful voice of Mina Kanaridis, who speaks/sings the medieval Galician/Portugese text with a definably Greek colouration and the use of gliding microtone melismas to increase tension at the end of phrases.

Although these recordings lean more toward a story-telling style than other Renaissance Players CDs, several of the cantigas are presented instrumentally, and many of the sung cantigas close with “an instrumental after-dance”. Evans takes advantage of the opportunity in these moments to inject some typical Renaissance Players energy and excitement. This collection of recordings are haunting, beautiful and exciting!

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